In recent days a lot of ink and air time have been devoted to denouncing Garry Trudeau's current ''Doonesbury'' episode. Perhaps the harshest words came from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, who opined that Mr. Trudeau ''found himself cast in the unlikely mold of Alan Simpson at the Anita Hill hearings -- spreading personal innuendo.''
Comparing a man to the junior senator from Wyoming is ultimate nastiness.
The mainstream media heavies cluck that Mr. Trudeau is publicizing a discredited charge that Vice President Quayle purchased cocaine a decade ago. But the media have managed to miss a key point. In a matter of a couple of weeks, Garry Trudeau has done what the entire journalistic profession has been unable or unwilling to do for the past three years -- break the logjam that has blocked a serious media focus on the experiences of a federal prisoner, Brett Kimberlin.
No, Kimberlin is not the guy who (we've been told countless times) broke down and cried after flunking a lie-detector test administered by CBS' ''60 Minutes'' about his claim to have sold cocaine to Mr. Quayle. Kimberlin -- who makes his first appearance in ''Doonesbury'' in the next few days -- is someone who tried to use the First Amendment just before the 1988 election, and found that it was revocable.
Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons were in frequent contact with the Bush-Quayle campaign in the days just before the '88 election. Keeping close tabs on what the prisoner Brett Kimberlin was doing and what was being done to him, aides to Messrs. Bush and Quayle repeatedly briefed top campaign strategists James Baker III, Lee Atwater and Stuart Spencer.
The warden of the penitentiary in Oklahoma, where Kimberlin was an inmate at the time, had authorized him to hold a news conference at the prison on the Friday before the national elections. But the news conference never happened: At the last minute, in an unprecedented action, the Bureau of Prisons director in Washington ordered it canceled. Instead of meeting with reporters who'd gathered at the prison, Kimberlin wound up in solitary confinement.
After the election that put Mr. Quayle a heartbeat away, for a long time Brett Kimberlin was ignored or discounted by mass media. He calmly and unwaveringly stuck to his story that he'd sold marijuana to the future vice president at least a dozen times when Mr. Quayle was in law school in Indianapolis between 1971 and 1973.
Kimberlin offered to take a polygraph test, but when a news service (Knight-Ridder) sought to take him up on the offer almost three years ago, federal prison authorities refused to allow it. That refusal was never reported.
Whether Kimberlin really sold pot to Dan Quayle is not of great moment. What does matter is that everything Kimberlin has said about his mistreatment by the federal Bureau of Prisons has checked out. And there is a great deal of evidence that the federal prison system was used for partisan political purposes, prior to the 1988 national election, in order to stifle his voice.
Supposedly watchdogs, mass media responded like docile lapdogs, showing a distinct lack of curiosity about what had gone on. A New York Times reporter, Michael Wines, told me that in December 1988 he ''wound up concluding that this was basically a case of one prison inmate who was a publicity hound'' -- though he hadn't bothered to speak with Kimberlin before reaching that conclusion.
It was to be nearly three years before Mr. Wines and his newspaper got back to the Kimberlin matter. They did so only in response to the uproar over the ''Doonesbury'' comic strip.
Some other media have done a bit better in the last year. Even so, the dribble of stories was prompted by the civil suit that Kimberlin has filed against Justice Department officials for abridgment of his constitutional rights. Despite Bush-administration objections, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the suit merits a full-blown trial next year.
Then there is the issue of parole for Kimberlin, who has been behind bars since 1979, when he was convicted on marijuana- smuggling and explosives charges. Last year the presidentially appointed U.S. Parole Commission decided to keep him imprisoned until February 1994. Despite Kimberlin's exemplary prison record, the Parole Commission is opting to keep him incarcerated for 180 months -- twice as long as the maximum time recommended in the federal guidelines of 64-92 months for a prisoner in Kimberlin's category of criminal conviction.
If, belatedly, the mass media begin to focus on the issues behind Kimberlin's treatment, there will be no reason for journalists to be proud of their past performance. They have the dogged determination of Brett Kimberlin and his volunteer lawyers to thank -- as well as a cartoonist using his art to awaken the nation's news media to the stench of a scandal buried three years ago that refuses to die.
Norman Solomon is co-author of ''Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media.''